Many of us have donated tissue for research without knowing it, according to Joanna Radin, Ph.D., associate professor in the history of medicine. If we’ve had a blood test or biopsy, or given birth in a hospital, then frozen specimens from our bodies may live on in laboratory freezers—blood, biopsied tissue, a snippet of umbilical cord. As of 2015, there were an estimated 600 million frozen human tissue specimens in the United States, accumulating at the rate of 20 million per year. In a new scholarly history, Life on Ice: A History of New Uses for Cold Blood, Radin explores the terra incognita of the “invisible infrastructure” that preserves human tissue.
Many people have read about one such tissue sample, as recounted in the 2010 bestseller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Author Rebecca Skloot describes how in 1951, before the advent of informed consent, a biologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital used cells taken from Lacks to establish an important cell line for cancer research. But Lacks is not unusual in having unwittingly donated her tissue to science. As Radin points out, “There are millions and millions of other samples, including maybe even your own.”
She explores not only the practical challenges but also the spiritual and ethical quandaries that arise from preserving “latent life”: Is frozen tissue alive or dead? Does the donor retain a claim to that tissue? “These are the kinds of questions that start to emerge when we pry open the freezer door,” says Radin.
In a book rich with metaphor, Radin describes how the need for transfusions on World War II battlefields advanced cold storage. After the war, cattle breeders pushed forward cold technology by using liquid nitrogen to refrigerate sperm used by itinerant inseminators. In light of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, biologists, geneticists, and epidemiologists began to worry about the health effects of radiation and chemical pollution. They reasoned that blood collected from remote places where “primitive” people lived, supposedly closer to nature, would serve as a baseline for knowledge about human health. These scientists “adopted the freezer as a time capsule that might prove useful in ways they could not even predict,” says Radin. A writer for the popular Life magazine nonetheless did make a prediction, speculating in 1952 that “spermatozoa from exceptional males could be saved to fertilize females of the future.”
Stored blood has indeed provided new information. For instance, blood collected in eastern Africa proved the hypothesis that the sickle cell trait evolved in response to the environment, as protection against malaria. In 1985, researchers from WHO found the first known trace of HIV-1 in human blood collected in the Congo in 1959.
But some donors have come to view the removal of blood from their communities as “biocolonialism.” The Yanomami community in the Amazon region demanded that blood collected in the 1960s be returned, in part because the donors had no control over how their blood was used for research. “Science is not a god who knows what is best for everybody,” a spokesperson told the press. While the community celebrated the return of 2,693 blood samples in 2015, Radin writes that for scientists, relinquishing the blood “was experienced as a loss of part of the vital legacy of science.”
Writing her book, Radin says, “has made me think differently about the boundaries between being alive and being dead.” When she goes to the Yale Health Center for a routine blood test, she says she thinks, “This material might outlive me. Does it become its own life form with its own lifespan?” And she recognizes that her blood has a different significance for her than it will if it goes into a laboratory freezer: “My concern about being sick or well is contributing to someone else’s hope for a cure.”